Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions by Ror Wolf – A Review

Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions
Ror Wolf
Open Letter, 2013, pg 142

It would be easy to characterize Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions as a collection of short stories. In some ways they are short stories in that they are short, usually two pages, and stories. However, anyone looking for a well tuned collection of micro fiction might be disappointed because as the title notes, these are digressions. In some ways they could be called anti-stories since they eschew any claim to plot, character or narrative structure that mark most stories, and instead delight in continually breaking down into digressions that call into question the assumptions that are built around story telling.

Ror Wolf is a German visual artist whose work is marked by surrealism and that juxtaposition of otherwise everyday elements into contrasting elements is evident in his work. For Wolf, narrative only exists to be broken down. His typical story is a first person piece that starts with the announcement about what the narrator is going narrate. The narrator never tells the story, though, instead he changes his mind a few sentences in and begins a new narrative direction. For example, The Next Story begins

The next story I’d like to tell I already told on Monday, and would not like to tell it again. So I’ll tell the story from Tuesday. But now it occurs to me that absolutely nothing happened on Tuesday that I could talk about…

or from The Rate of Fame

In the past, Lemm was often compared to Klomm, to whom he absolutely shouldn’t be compared because, one must admit, not a single feature of Klomm’s can be found in Lemm. Enough about him, but think of him from the start as a man to whom there is no one to compare. So we won’t talk about Lemm or Klomm. We’ll talk about Hamm instead…

Just these two short quotes give you an insight into his approach. First, there is a consciousness that we are observing the act of story telling and that that act is not the formalized illusion of a first person short story, but disassemble of the process of telling a story with all its false starts and digressions. Second, the story itself is not necessarily the import element, rather the act of telling the story is the important element. How the teller tells the story says as much as the story itself. Finally, although it is not quite as evident in these two pieces, all the false starts are new directions one can take the unwritten stories. The false starts are not dead ends, they are openings into stories as yet untold.

No Story is a good example of the creation of stories out side the story. It starts,

I don’t have a story to tell about an accountant’s wife who was unable to sit because she caught a filthy, itchy disease, I’ve never heard of such a case. I also don’t have a story to tell about the illegitimate birth of a child, on the occasion that the woman in question implored me not to tell the story.

Again, he starts and stops, hinting at something larger, but that he won’t tell, as if it were boring or distasteful. The sense that certain stories aren’t worth telling and that certain characters are pointless or annoying is a trait Wolf shares with Thomas Bernhard. With some frequency his stories have the acerbic bitterness of Bernhard and more than a few times his stories felt similar to the Voice Imitator. However, where Bernhard wants to poke fun at society and is preoccupied with the pettiness of bourgeois life, Wolf is more interested in how the stories one tells constructs that reality.

All of his stories call into question what is a story. Is it the plot, the characters, or something else? And more important, what is the point of telling them? After reading several of his stories it is obvious there are no answers. But the idea that narrative contains one story, and whose very existence is to relate something is quickly dashed when reading Wolf’s digressions. The breaking of the narrative strategies can also the stories occasionally tiresome to read. No matter how good they are, all the shifting of the story telling can make a stead diet of them difficult to read. I would recommend dosing your effort to get the full power of his work.

While the first two thirds of the book is made up of the stories I’ve described, the last third is a long form narrative: The Forty-Ninth Digression: Twelve Chapters from a Exposed Life. The story is a kind of traveler’s journal of his various ship wreck and travels throughout the world. Except, in typical Wolf fashion, the actual travels are the least important part, often getting a perfunctory line of basic description. They are, if I can use the anti word again, anti-travel writing. The idea that one would describe the emotions, customs, or opinions of the characters is ludicrous. Yet the narrator is aware of his adventures and probably the most telling line from the whole book says,

I took pleasure in these notes; to me they seemed to become increasingly important, they were the real reason for my journey from chapter eight onwards. I didn’t write down my experiences, but tried to experience what I wanted to write down in order to lend a uniqueness to my notes that has not yet appeared in literature, or at best not in in Scheizhofer’s writing. (Emphasis mine)

Here is the crux of Wolf’s writing: one lives to write and in doing so looks for things to write about, but that is an unnatural act. The writing is the artificial element, it is the author’s search for something to write about. And that search rather than reportage, is the disruption of the experiment. Whether or not you love all of his stories, if you are interested in story telling this is a fascinating book to read.

Alejandro Zambra Interviewed in El Pais

El Pais has a decent length interview with Alejandro Zambra. It is worth checking out to get a sense of what animates his writing.

—Sí, claro. De ser un niño muy teórico e inteligentoso, la literatura pasó a servirme para explicarme cosas de las que no estaba seguro. En Formas de volver a casa yo sabía lo que estaba narrando, pero pretendía también disolver otras certezas, conseguir una cierta ambigüedad. Que el libro fuera muchas cosas a la vez. Y por supuesto que algunas cosas no sabía que estaban ahí. Eso es lo que tiene la literatura de intransferible: existen fragmentos no calculados. Creo que intenté otra manera de hablar de la dictadura chilena, que a ratos desconcierta. Hay escritores chilenos profesionales que recorren Europa…

—Comercializando el dolor.

—Claro, y bueno, sabemos quiénes son. A veces cuesta explicar en el extranjero que acá existía una vida cotidiana mientras sucedían hechos horrendos. Un periodista francés, a propósito de Formas de volver a casa, me preguntó cómo era posible que un niño anduviera por las calles en ese tiempo, sin saber que los niños de entonces andábamos por las calles harto más que los de ahora.

Los libros de Zambra, no es ni necesario preguntárselo, son autobiográficos. Hurguetean en él mismo. Hay una voz que los atraviesa. Cualquiera sea el conflicto —siempre finalmente íntimo— está el testimonio de un narrador encarnado. “En Formas de volver a casa pagué una deuda con mi infancia. Durante mucho tiempo pensé que mi experiencia no tenía importancia. Era el tiempo en que lo realmente significativo era que se esclarecieran los crímenes, que las víctimas de la tortura pudieran hablar; los que importaban no éramos nosotros —los hijos de la clase media del extrarradio, despolitizada— sino los hijos de las víctimas. Si entonces me hubieran dicho que escribiría una novela sobre la villa en que vivía en Maipú, no lo hubiera creído. Esa novela, más que relatar hechos, lo que quiere es hacerse cargo de la imposibilidad de relatarlos. En rigor, ahí hay experiencias, pero también está la sensación de que no valen la pena de ser narradas, porque hay asuntos que son más importantes. En el fondo tiene que ver con el duelo, cuando este se transformó en algo realmente colectivo en Chile. Esto debe haber pasado hace unos diez años. Dejó de ser un asunto solamente de las víctimas, y la mayoría de los chilenos entendieron que estas cosas le habían pasado al país. Aún quedan muchos crímenes sin resolver, todavía campea la impunidad, pero al menos los chilenos entendimos, la mayoría, que el duelo es colectivo”.

El arte de la resurrecction (The Art of the Resurrection) by Hernan Rivera Letelier – A Review

El arte de la resurrecction (The Art of the Resurrection)
Hernan Rivera Letelier
Alfaguara, 2010 254 pg

Hernan Rivera Letelier’s El arte de la resurrecction is a novelization of the life of a Chilean mystic and wandering preacher, Domingo Zárate Vega known as El Cristo de Elqui, who roamed the country during the 30s and 40s. Letelier gives a small slice of his life as El Cristo de Elqui journeys north into the desert in search of the holy prostitute Magalena Mercado who keeps an alter in her home and is devoted the Virgin Mary. He tracks her to a godforsaken little mining town in the desert where he is hailed as a holy man by the striking workers and as a agitator by management. Most of the book is concerned with his preaching in the town and how the strike unfolds as management grows more and more angry at his seeming rebellious behavior.

El Cristo de Elqui, though, is not a revolutionary but a mystic who has added his own additions to Christianity, much to the annoyance of church officials throughout Chile who see him as a threat. He is free, when he feels the need, to have sex with one of his followers, often quickly and on the roadside. In one of the funnier incidents, the day he arrives he gos to Magalena’s shack where he stretches his arms across the back of a table in a pose reminiscent of the crucifixion and she performs her trade. El arte is irreverent but not libertine so scenes like this are more scarce than one might think. El Cristo is more a holy fool, a man who has lost touch with reality and experiences the world in a mystic reality that makes him unable to perform simple tasks. It is this kind of mysticism that leads him to believe he can walk through the desert on his way to find Magalena. Naturally, he ends up walking in a circle and nearly dies, alone, forgotten. A sample of his teachings will illustrate just what kind of holy man he is. When asked for some new proverbs he says,

“La franqueza es la llave de la buena amistad.”
“La honradez es un palacio de oro”
“Las aves del cielo son mas felices que los grandes millonarios, a pesar de dormir en sus patitas y cubiertas solo de sus plumas.”
Y uno que el Padre Eterno me revelo hace solo unos días, mientras evacuaba mi vientre en plena pampa rasa: “Buen remedio es para la soberbia del hombre volver la cabeza de vez en cuando y contemplar su propia mierda.”

“Frankness is the key to good friendships.”
“Honesty is a palace of gold.”
“The birds of the sky are happier than the greatest millionaires, in spite of sleeping on their feet and covered only by their feathers.”
And one that the Holy Father revealed a few days ago when I was evacuating my bowels in the middle of the  pampa: “A good remedy for the pride of man is to turn his head once and awhile and contemplate his own shit.”

Through multiple different voices and flashbacks Letelier leads us through El Cristo de Elqui’s failures and almost successes. At one time, before the novel takes place, he had journeyed to Santiago ready to speak to thousands of followers, only to have the government arrest him and hold him in a mental hospital for several months. An abuse of state power, but given some of his actions there is just a bit of doubt, too, if his hospital stay was needed. It is obvious as the book closes that El Cristo de Elqui is as much a figure of ridicule as wisdom.

Letelier also takes time to describe Magalena’s background and this is where shows the greatest of its many weaknesses. For much the book the idea of the holy prostitute is puzzling and one wonders how someone who was so devoted to the church would become a prostitute. Unfortunately, his solution to this question is simple, insulting, and humorless: she was sexually abused by the priest who took care of her as a child. Her only escape was to run away from home and become a prostitute. What marks his humor uninteresting, and there is plenty of humor on display here, is the frivolity of the abuse and her later life as a prostitute. It is as if there were no scars, as if her personality disappeared in her religiosity. Perhaps one could say it is just a refuge for a damaged soul, but given her character is one of the biggest cliches there is, the prostitute with a heart of gold (who gives tricks on credit to the striking miners), I think it’s just bad writing. There is no complexity gained out of any of this. Just simple characters to push around the desert.

Ultimately, El arte, with its picturesque strikers who are either comical clients of Magalena or buffoonish followers of El Cristo de Elqui, is a book sprinkled with the left overs from a magical realism workshop and really has nothing to say. When I finally reached the end of the book, where El Cristo de Elqui (and yes, his name is used with the same frequency in the book as in this short little piece) and Magalena are exiled to a little hill outside of town where the strikers make their pilgrimage to see her and Letelier takes great pleasure in describing the grotesques they are, I couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, there is humor is this book; yes, there is some good writing in the book; but there is also a tendency to infantilize and instead of black humor, I had the feeling of just another man writing about sex without really saying anything new. I am rather tired of prostitutes and magical realism. Enough. There is more to Latin America.


Quarterly Conversation Summer 2013 Out Now

The Quarterly Conversation Summer 2013 issue is out now with some interesting pieces. These in particular caught my eye:

What Comes Next

By Sergio Chejfec, translated by Jessica Gordon-Burroughs

The Irresistible Heart of Darkness: Jáchym Topol and the Devil to Pay

By Madeleine LaRue

The Abdellatif Laâbi Interview

Interview by Christopher Schaefer

The Joan Margarit Interview

Interview by Prithvi Varatharajan

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim

Review by Tim Smyth

Airships by Barry Hannah – A Review

Barry Hannah
Grove Press, (Original publishing date) 1978, pg 209

Barry Hannah was a master of a certain style of American short story, one that prizes a discontinuity of humor and the absurd over more common modes of the perfectly wrought short story as in his contemporaries, such as Carver. Certainly there is an echo of an America that you can find in Carver, but for Hannah every story is an opportunity for a joke or a black humor that is suspicious of everything. In Hannah you seldom find a character that you can, in that most tiresome of literary criteria, relate to, nor do they seem to live in a world that you might recognize. What you see are stories that live at a distance from everyday experience, and form, instead,  fables and allegories of hubris and overreach that collapse in surreal plots and finds characters performing outrageous acts. At times it is funny, but there is also a distance in the stories that once the joke is understood leaves them flat, the reader saying, “oh, I get it.” The danger with absurd humor is that distancing, a phenomenon where there are no stakes left for the reader but a kind of smugness. This is not a case for a moralistic fiction, but the humor in Hannah has an attitude that just laughs without really providing much ambiguity.

Despite these faults, his stories are so well written with their American literary vernacular that passages of his work are a marvel to read. He can capture an image of a life in a brief paragraph that makes the whole story seem alive. Take this example from Deaf and Dumb

She had a certain smile that would have bought her the world had the avenue of regard been wide enough for her. They loved it at the Bargain Barn. But the town was one where beauty walked the walks as a matter of course, and her smile was soon forgotten by clerk and hurried lecher on the oily parking lot. She never had any talent for gay chatter. She could only talk in brief phrases close on the truth. How much is this? Is this washable? This won’t do, it’s ugly.

It perfectly captures a down on her luck woman who doesn’t have much luck with men. I should mention Deaf and Dumb is one of the few stories that doesn’t feel completely jokey. There is a real sense of a human inhabiting that woman. Even when a story fails to be alive, Hannah can still create paragraphs like those that can make one think this story is going to dazzle. Unfortunately, all too often a story will turn into something like Quo Vidas, Smut. For me this was the worst story of the bunch, one that meandered amongst a fugitive tale, then to a kind of rural pastoral, to surreal when a jet takes off from a farm field, ultimately finish with sex. It is here with when his surrealism fails, and his literary jokes, referencing other stories that have touched all these themes seriously, fall flat.

One of Hannah’s preoccupations is the Civil War, and more specifically, Jeb Stuart, the dashing carvery general and martyr to the cause. Something about Stuart didn’t sit right with Hannah and in one story he has a character take credit for killing the General. The irony here is the man who killed him was first a confederate soldier who loved to kill and later, when he joins the Union side, does he kill him, finding as he looks back as an old veteran that the Confederate veterans don’t want to have anything to do with him. It is an interesting story because, one, it deflates one of the sacred generals of the south, and, two, it plays with the idea of legend. As the veteran tries to take claim for the killing it could well have been him, but he finds you can’t be the hero to both sides. And if it was him, that truly was brother on brother in a way that doesn’t fit the sanctified cliches of a hundred year-old war. In Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed, a gay soldier relates his encounter with Stuart one night. He tries to proposition him, which the general refuses, but does not otherwise notice. At the same time there is a slave who won’t shake the soldier’s hand, Stuart chastises him then hugs him as if they were lovers. Again, the general, the Christian defender of the Confederacy is satirized by treating a slave as some sort of equal and lover.

One of the better stories is Testimony of Pilot. Testimony of Pilot is a Vietnam era piece that seems cold, narrating the life story of two friends, one who joins the air force and the other, the narrator, who lives his life as an ex drummer gone deaf from too much rock and roll. Between them is a woman Lillian, a stewardess. The pilot is cold and lives his life fr the war participating in mission after mission. He won’t even kiss Lillian when he lands at an airfield just to see her (a scene that is straight out of a movie). None of them come to a good end and there is no reason for it, either. As is common in Hannah, the narrative isn’t the most important element. He works his stories to serve the humor, which often doesn’t leave room for a more character based reason. Character driven stories are not required, but when Lillian dies in a crash it is off handed, as if the fun is showing how pointless these lives have been. In small doses it works to great effect, but in a collection full of these kind of elements, it can get a little off putting.

Barry Hannah was certainly a good writer and I’m curious to see what stories published a decade later, perhaps in the 80s, would be like. The humor, often rooted in a 70s sensibility, is just too unfunny to make this collection a stand out. There are great elements to it, but the flaws just overwhelm them.

Clara Usón and Juan Carlos Mestre Win the premios de la Crítica Prize

Clara Usón and Juan Carlos Mestre have won the premios de la Crítica Prize, she for fiction and he for poetry. This is the first woman to win the prize for fiction in 52 years, which is quite surprising (only 3 women have won the prize at all). These are the Spanish language winners. There are also Catalan, Galician, and Basque winners.

La novela de Usón (Barcelona, 1961) está inspirada en la hija de Ratko Mladic, uno de los criminales más sanguinarios de la guerra de los Balcanes (ordenó ejecutar a 8.000 bosnios tras el cerco de Srebenica)¿Es justo que ella se hubiera suicidado al descubrir los horrores cometidos por su padre? Se preguntó la escritora barcelonesa (1961) para quien, dijo en una entrevista a este diario que “el populismo azuza la xenofobia y el nacionalismo y creen que pueden controlarlo, pero al final no es así”. Usón obtuvo en 2009 el premio Biblioteca Breve por Corazón de Napalm.

La escritora se muestra feliz y sorprendida por el premio. Lo primero que dice es que hace 52 años no lo recibía una mujer, y que además ese último año, 1961, es el de su nacimiento. Solo lo han recibido Ana María Matute en 1959 por Los hijos muertos y Elena Quiroga en 1961 por Tristura. La hija del Este se va a editar próximamente en países como Holanda, Francia e Italia.

The winners from Spain’s other languages:

En las otras lenguas los ganadores fueron: Catalán, Narrativa Jordi Coca por El caure la tarda; y Poesía, Jordi Llavina por Vetlla. En gallego, Narrativa, Begoña Caamaño por Morgana en Esmelle, y Poesía, Manuel Álvarez Torreiro por Os ángulos da brasa. En euskera: Narrativa, Ramón Saizarbitoria por Martutene, y Poesía, Rokardo Arregi por Bitan esan becharra.

Hablar solos (Talking Alone / Talking to Ourselves) by Andrés Neuman – A Review

portada-hablar-solos_grandeHablar solos (Talking Alone / Talking to Ourselves)
Andrés Neuman
Alfagara, 2012, pg 179

Andrés Neuman is a remarkable writer who is at home writing short stories and novels. With the publication of his latest book Hablar solos, he has returned to a more intimate writing than what readers of  Traveler of the Century, published in English in 2012, might expect. At less than half the length, Hablar solos is closer in spirit to 2011’s collection of short stories Hacerse el muerto, and is composed of dialogue between three people. The three people, however, never talk to each other and in many ways do not interact with each other, instead they talk to each other as if they were writing a journal entry with all its rhetorical fluidity. I mention Hacerse el muerto because, while comic at times, returns to the theme of parental loss that he first touched on in his short quintet, Una silla para alguien. All of these elements make Hablar solos a much more personal book that shows a broad range of feeling and subjects he Neuman is willing to approach.

The three narrators are Mario, a truck driver and father of, Lito a young boy, and Elena, his wife and a professor of literature. As the book opens Mario takes Lito on a one of his deliveries in his truck, Pedro. As they drive across Spain, Mario takes Lito on a grand adventure, seeping in the cab, eating at truck stops, sleeping in hotels. It is all fascinating for the boy and everything is a big adventure. Even when strange encounters occur Lito has no idea what it really going on. Nor does he know that Mario is dying of cancer and this is their last time together. Everything they do in the truck together is tinged with sadness as Mario knows it is the last time they can do it together. While Lito’s narration is fairly matter of fact: we did this, saw that; Mario’s is a pleas for his son to remember the things they did together and understand some day what he did for Lito on that journey.

Perhaps the best example of the two voices working together is when they spend the night in a strange hotel that doesn’t even have a shower in the bathroom and Mario insists Lito not sit on the bed spread and make sure he walks everywhere with his slippers. In the hotel cafe where men and women dance, that in itself a rarity, they meet a self described magician who gives Lito a hat. Mario can’t wait to get him out of there despite Lito’s protests. He doesn’t understand why his father would do that when they were having such a good time. What Lito doesn’t know is they are in a brothel because Mario felt so sick he couldn’t continue on and stopped at the first hotel he could find. The man, Mario says, though Lito was for rent since who could believe a father would bring their son into a place like that. It is a funny and touching moment showing both the desperation of the father to have that one last experience with his son, and to protect him from what ever harm he can.

The strongest and ever present voice, though, is Elena. He narration makes up half the book and is where the real exploration of the pain of loss happens. Mario is unable to express himself very deeply. Everything goes through the family, but for Elena the coming loss is overwhelming and leads her into an affair with Mario’s cancer doctor. It is a strange relationship, almost sadomasochistic, one where the doctor fetishes the human body in all its failings. It isn’t so much a love affair as an act of denial: for her that death is coming; for the doctor that in worshiping the body, even with all its flaws, can heal those who are about to feel loss. These are the conversations Mario and Elena should be having, but the novel is called Hablar solos for a good reason: no one is willing to discuss anything and leaves Elena to wonder

Pero otras veces me pregunto: ¿Y si ese, exactamente, fuera Mario? ¿Y si, en lugar de haber perdido su esencia, ahora sólo quedase lo esencial de él? ¿Como una desilación? ¿Y si en este hospital estuvieramos malentendiendo los cuerpos de nuestors seres queridos?

But at other times I wondered: And if this really were Mario? And if instead of having lost his essence, now, only remained the essential parts of him? Like a distillation? And if in this hospital we are misunderstanding the bodies of our dear ones?

Because Mario and Elena speak by themselves they are unable to answer these questions. It makes the grief Elena feels all the greater. Yet when it is a private thing and when she is reproached for not having asked earlier for help from her friends or family she says,

Confunden SOS y SSO, lo que yo llamo Servicio Sentimental Obligatorio

They confuse the SOS and the OSS, what I call the Obligatory Sentimental Service.

It is a line that captures the novel well, the struggle between communicating and expressing one’s self. The irony of the novel is that although the characters are talking alone, they are talking ad they know they need to pass along what they have to say, they just can’t bring themselves to do it in conversation. It is as if conversation would contain their ability to express themselves.

Hablar solos is an excellent book that successfully renders three distinct voices into a conversation. Neuman’s experiment with the different voices is quite successful and even though you don’t know the whole back story to the characters (this feels like Neuman the short story writer at work, and a nice touch), you have the sense of a completion. What really made the novel so good, though, was Neuman’s way of delving into the slow loss that cancer brings. It can make the novel tough at times, but the humor, especially in the voice of Lito, doesn’t less it so much as make it easier to approach. It is a delicate balancing act that shows Neuman at the top of his game and a writer whose next work I look forward to reading.

If you are looking to read it in English, Puskin Press will be publishing it in Spring 2014.